The Panama Canal
Panama is indeed the major crossroads of the world. Colon
was a madhouse with ships and boats of every size and description coming and
going to and from all points of the globe.
We immediately set out to begin the process for Canal transit. First came paperwork to enter the Canal Zone. Then
came the forms and photocopies of every document that has ever been printed
followed by the appointment to have Entr'acte measured to determine the proper
fee. The next afternoon we were admeasured
and placed in a queue to receive our transit time.
Next we had to organize our
transit crew. The Canal Authority
supplies an advisor for each boat but further requires that every boat have one
person at the helm and four line handlers. Normally we would crew for Mr. John and they
would crew for us, but since we were making the transit together we had to look
We offered to crew for Storm
Along and they agreed to reciprocate. We
also met two Dutch girls who were looking for adventure. So, we had Brian and
Bob from Storm Along with Kitty, Renska and Ellen to round out the crew. The addition of our advisor brought
Entr'acte's crew to seven! This was
going to get interesting!
The number of boats and ships
transiting the Canal must be seen to be believed! Every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, a
ship enters and leaves the Canal. It
never stops. There were so many transits
booked that our scheduled time was two weeks away. The time was easily filled
with preparations, procuring tires for fenders, and trying to make essential
On the repair front things
were not going well. The shipping charge
for the water maker was quoted at $1160.00 ONE WAY! We finally found compass fluid at a
ridiculous $100.00 a pint. Forget
that! No one could make a new chain
plate in 316 stainless. This was turning
out to be a bust. There was so much rain
that any repair of the aft ports was impossible and because of the rain we discovered a leak in
the port walkway caused by a small crack, a further result of the hit and run
Daily inspections of the
weather maps showed that the southwest trades had become established and after
listening to the morning radio nets of the south-bounders as they bashed to
windward we decided to revert to plan B.
After our transit of the Panama Canal, we would turn north and go to Costa Rica,
haul Entr'acte for the rainy season and fly home for a visit and to get
We discovered that that we
both could fly round trip and hand carry the water maker as well as the
compass, clock and everything else that needed repair for a fraction of the
cost of shipping any one item. That
decision made, we could settle down and "enjoy" the experience of
going through the Canal.
To transit the Panama Canal in your own boat is truly the experience of
a lifetime. The Canal is a magnificent
feat of engineering and for us to transit in little Entr’acte and make use of a
facility of this magnitude is truly a privilege. The locks are 1000 feet long and the entire
system was built for large cargo ships. The up-locking process moves 54 MILLION gallons of water within
the space of ten minutes. As a result,
the forces and turbulence generated during the up-locking process are extreme
for a small boat and stories abound of boats getting out of control and being
damaged during the process. It is best
to be well prepared. The best way to
gain experience beforehand is to make a transit as crew for someone else. We made two such trips and each one had its
own element of adventure. On the first
transit with Storm Along we were a three-boat raft with a catamaran as the
center boat. The raft was too heavy for the cat to control. His twin engines
were just not strong enough for the weight of the three boats combined and all
of the currents produced. While up-locking we came within an inch of slamming
the entire raft into the lock wall and when down-locking, with all engines in
full reverse the entire raft moved inexorably toward the lock doors, unable to
stop. "I can't hold her” was the
constant cry as his engines screamed in reverse.
Our second transit aboard the
French yacht Ouqioq was even more dramatic. All went without a hitch during the
up-locking but as we approached the Pedro Miguel lock the engine caught fire
filling the cabin with smoke. Fortunately
at that same moment our advisor was told that there would be a forty-minute
delay; we were directed to tie the raft to a mooring buoy and wait for the
lock to clear. Below all was chaos! The
heat was outrageous and the tension unreal!
The minutes ticked by as the fire was extinguished but the engine
refused to start.
Our advisor told me, "If
we are not ready to go when they call us I am required to report this as an
incident. The boat must remain here
until it is inspected and approved. You
will lose your $850.00 incident deposit plus there will be a towing fee of
$5000.00 per hour. No one may leave the
boat until it is cleared which could take several days." Entr'acte's transit was scheduled for the
next day and if we were stuck here with Ouqioq not only would we lose our
$850.00 incident fee but we would drop to the back of the waiting list for a new
transit date. The pressure was on.
"Mr. Scott! I need warp drive NOW Mr. Scott!"
"Captain I'm doin’ the
best I can!"
Several times the engine
started and died and we on the verge of giving up hope as the radio crackled
"Move ahead, the lock is free!"
The engine belched smoke and water, and stopped. We made one last desperate attempt as we
entered the lock and with a mighty roar and gush of water it started and ran!
Everyone including the advisor cheered.
We completed the transit without further incident. Tomorrow was our turn.
For some reason known only to
the Canal Authority they choose to up-lock all west-bound yachts at night. We were well rehearsed. Our crew was ready
and experienced and best of all we were going through with Mr. John as the
center controlling boat. What could
possibly go wrong?
We took our advisor aboard as
the sun set and set off for the first lock five miles away,
and.....it began to RAIN! Like no rain
anyone has ever seen since the time of the flood, the rain was so heavy anyone
on the foredeck disappeared. We had to
find the two other boats, make up the raft and enter the lock in this
downpour. Surely they would hold the
transit! No such luck! Off we went into the night with ships' fog
horns sounding from every direction.
Somehow we all found each
other, connected and as a raft of three boats we motored toward the loom that
we hoped was Gatun Lock.
As the rain lightened to a
drizzle, I felt a presence in the dark as the gigantic wall of a cargo ship
slid by to take its place in the lock ahead of us. He was
soooo huge! It's a good thing that
everyone knew what they were doing. It's
all different when you are in charge and not a passenger. Whew!
The up-locks were moving
along without a hitch. We all worked
well as a team using our engines as directed by the advisors.
"Port yacht (Entr'acte)
"Half astern aye!"
Suddenly there was a shout
and a mad scramble from the starboard boat in the raft. One of their line handlers somehow lost their
end of the bow line. The raft was going
out of control as the water turbulence took over. We were swinging toward the wall with
Entr'acte on the inside! We would be
crushed like a peanut under the weight of the raft!
"Starboard yacht full
astern, port yacht full forward! Keep
those stern lines tight! Keep it tight!
Keep it tight!"
"All yachts, half
"Half ahead aye!"
"Full ahead! Full ahead!
"Full ahead aye!"
They recovered the line just
in time and we completed the final phase of the procedure without mishap. A very close call!
All the advisors
congratulated the crews of Entr'acte and Mr. John for the way we worked
together. It was obvious that John was a
master mariner with a Captain's ticket.
He had transited the Canal in command of cargo ships countless times
over the years.
The advantage of a night time
up-lock was that we had to spend a night tied to a buoy on Gatun Lake. It was a very late night supper enjoyed to
the tune of the howler monkeys in the jungle.
At 05:00 the next morning we
took our advisor Rudolpho aboard and enjoyed a very relaxing motor trip across Gatun Lake,
the largest man-made lake in the world. The down-locking went
without incident and we made our exit through the "Pearly Gates" to
the cheers of a hundred tourists lining the spectator tower at the
Entr'acte was now in the Pacific Ocean.
The cost of the transit was
$600.00 plus the $850.00 incident deposit which was returned unused. Our crew
disembarked at the Balboa Yacht Club and after a few days to clean Entr'acte,
dispose of tires, and generally make ready for sea we set sail for the las Perlas Islands
and Costa Rica.
The Perlas were a delightful
archipelago of islands just 40 miles from Panama
City. It was a
relief to sit at anchor and recover from the tension and frenzy of the Canal
but the rainy season was really upon us and we had to make for Costa Rica
before we drowned!
Our passage up the west coast
of Panama and into Costa Rica was
pleasant enough but not without its challenges.
Rounding Punta Mala was such a non-event that we thought we had
it in the bag but by midnight trying to round Moro Porcos we were slamming into
huge head seas and current, going through the water at five knots but traveling
one knot backwards over the ground, pumping every twenty minutes. It's the only time in
thirty years we have taken so much water aboard.
As we entered Costa Rica we
bid a sad farewell to John and Paula. Their goal was Mexico
and the Sea of Cortez, while we would stop at Puntarenas
and effect repairs to Entr'acte in preparation for her Pacific crossing next
season. Our next port of call would be the Costa Rica Yacht Club in Puntarenas. But that
begins another story.
Stay tuned for the next
chapter in the continuing Voyage of Entr'acte.